Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reminders of Our Failures

Finally, back to posting about our session earlier this month at the TICCIH conference. I was privileged to be on a panel with Moulshri Joshi, a member of the architectural team who won the competition award for plans for a memorial at the site of the Union Carbide gas tragedy in Bhopal, India.

In her passionate presentation, she raised some provocative questions:
  • Can our understanding of heritage be extended to include reminders of our failures as well as tokens of our past glories?
  • Is the attempt to eradicate symbols of failure and suffering effectively a selective overwriting of history, in order to construct a more appropriate collection identity?
  • How inclusive are our notions of the collective identity which we seek to preserve and how far such an identity would represent narratives of the marginalized?
The challenges at Bhopal are many. The site is still contaminated and the city is rapidly encroaching. There are competing ideas about how the site should be used: should funds be used to improve the lives of those affected by the tragedy still living in poverty? What should the memorial be like? A park? a monument? And it will probably be years before any scheme is completed. But I found much in common between Bhopal and Chernobyl.

My own talk was framed around the ways in which the disaster at the Chernobyl is interpreted and presented both at Chernobyl itself, at the Chernobyl museum in Kyiv, and at the information center in Slavutich and online at, a website operated by former residents of Pripyat, the abandoned city near Chernobyl. All of these sites are different, telling different stories. At Chernobyl and in Pripyat itself, it's left to the visitor to make sense of the story. It is a place of highly individualistic meaning-making. At the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv, it seems to me to be primarily a memorial story; in Slavutich, the city built to replace Pripyat, the story is one of the plant and those who worked there--and a memorial to them as well.

In thinking about my presentation, I drew on the work of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, to consider the ways in which these sites of tragedy--of failure, as Moulshri notes--could provide a place for discussion and conversation about not just the past, but the future. These sites are everything but easy. The Coalition's work addresses questions such as:
  • How can sites like these both acknowledge private experiences and encourage public participation?
  • What reactions do sites like these engender: memory, horror, voyeurism, fear, action?
  • Can museums or sites that encourage discussion be state-run or must they be independent?
  • How, and should, multiple perspectives be shown at these sites?
  • How will these memorials involve new generations who have no memory of the event?
When I worked with photographer Michael Forster Rothbart on his Chernobyl exhibit in Kyiv Kyiv last spring, we conducted visitor evaluations. Some results from our (admittedly unscientific) survey (and special thanks to Natasha and all the volunteers for all their work on collecting and translating these). One question--before you visited this exhibit, what thoughts came to mind? Some of the answers:
  • Radiation
  • Sad, frightening and hopeful
  • Danger
  • The place of lost technologies
  • Nothing good, ecological catastrophe
  • I was there, nothing good
  • Suffering of the whole world
  • Ukraine is not Chernobyl
Think of the challenges of developing a museum, exhibit or memorial around visitor reactions like that. It's very unusual in Ukraine for audiences to be asked what they would like to see in an exhibit. When we asked about what other information viewers would like presented in an exhibit (particularly to foreigners), here's some of the answers:
  • That it might affect people right now
  • To remind us of what we already know all the time.
  • We know enough [visitor from Italy]
  • More truthful information, all the information available
  • Show foreigners that Ukraine is not the country of freaks
  • The info is shown from one side, but there was a lot of horror as well
  • Information about people who died protecting others. Foreigners should know the truth
  • Everything, the more the better
That last comment, "the more the better," is the take-away for me from this conference session and my talented colleagues. The more we share, talk, discuss, and debate both our successes and failures, whether it's industrial history or any other kind of history, the greater the chances are for understanding and change. Museums and historic sites have unique opportunities to be this kind of space. A space where transparency matters.

Top: Union Carbide plant, Bhopal, from jphangoo on Flickr.
Center and bottom: Pripyat, Ukraine

Friday, September 25, 2009

International Public History Working Group

At the TICCIH conference in Freiberg, Germany, I met Anna Adamek, Curator of Natural Resources and Industrial Design at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. She's active in the National Council on Public History, which focuses primarily on North America. After our return, she shared this call for participation in a working group at NCPH's 2010 meeting in Portland, Oregon which will explore the ways in which public history discussions could be considered worldwide--hoping that I could help connect her to colleagues in Ukraine and elsewhere.
So below, the call for participation.
This International Public History working group is part of an initiative by the NCPH International Task Force to provide a forum for a dialogue among public historians worldwide. Over the last three decades public history has been proliferating in North America. The Task Force would like to explore the state of public history around the world, and opportunities for greater international cooperation in the field. Is there a need for an international organization in public history, for universal standards, and a strong global lobby? How can the NCPH and the Public Historian serve the international community?

The facilitators invite the participation of public history professionals from around the world in the working group on internationalization of public history. Through a moderated discussion, the contributors will explore the need for and benefits of formal international cooperation in the field. Each participant will be asked to outline the state of public history in their country, and present examples of the best practices or model institutions from their home countries. Next, the participant will be asked to present their views on bringing public history professionals across the globe together. The working group will then put forward a list of non-binding recommendations for the International Task Force.

If you're interested in participating in Portland, or from afar, please contact me and I'll put you in touch with Anna. Our session at TICCIH discussed the need to expand our global perspectives in industrial history--and I'm looking forward to the ways in which NCPH might consider global perspectives as well.

Destroying A Place of Memory

Earlier this year, after my return from Ukraine, I wrote about the challenges of interpreting history in Ukraine, framed around my visit to Babi Yar, the ravine where Nazis murdered thousands of Jews and other Ukrainians.

This past week, the Kyiv city government announced a plan to build a hotel on the site of the massacre. A sad, thoughtless, greedy plan that I hope never comes to be.

You can read more at the BBC and the Kyiv Post.

UPDATE: Late this week, the Kyiv City government, under pressure, announced that the hotel would not be built in this location.

Above: The monument at Babi Yar

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Calling All Volunteers

I can't even remember how many conversations I've had about small museums and the lack of volunteers. "No one wants to volunteer," "People just won't commit," "Women are all working," and more are the common complaints.

In the past several weeks I've come across an event, a blog, and a newsletter that make me think that perhaps the problem is not with those busy non-volunteers, but in the way we connect and deal with them.

First the event. The photos in this post are from the New Kingston Film Festival, in tiny New Kingston, NY. The day-long film festival is held in a barn (bring your own blankets) and featured an eclectic group of films. But what's important is why the festival exists, according to their website,
We moved to the hamlet of New Kingston from the borough of Brooklyn in 2007. When we got here we said to each other, "this place is perfect! It's got nice people, stunning views, a post's all we ever wanted!" we thought some more and then said to each other, "actually maybe there is ONE thing that New Kingston lacks...A Film Festival!"
So, these volunteers (because it's clear nobody's making any money from the festival), got to work: found films, did promotion, borrowed chairs from the church, got a restaurant to provide food, make coffee and popcorn, got a port-a-john, hung the lights, made sure the projector was working. And then, did it all again for the second year. All of these are tasks that most small museums would love volunteers to do. Why did they do it?

Next up on my volunteer notice list: A blog from the Montezuma Historical Society about their Erie Canal related archaeological dig this summer. Cheryl Longyear, town historian, created the blog about their adventures--and in a thank-you to volunteers, wrote,
What an amazing group of volunteers we had for our August 29 and 30 dig. You took volunteerism to a whole new level. We survived the weekend with heavy rain, mud, mosquitoes and lots of hard work. But wait; there's more....they even said they would come back again in two weeks to close out the three plots we worked on all weekend.

Under the expert guidance and direction of David Babson, we now are expert novices at plotting, digging, sifting, and documenting artifacts found on the Four Canals Historic site in Montezuma. As soon as available we will post details, photos and video of this amazing weekend.

Thank you, thank you, volunteers. YOU ARE THE GREATEST!!! In spite of the challenging weather conditions, I'm thrilled with the teamwork and all that was accomplished.
What made these volunteers give up a summer weekend to the mud, mosquitos and hard work?

And finally on my notice list, the newsletter of the Slate Valley Museum--and their help wanted column. It reported that several positions from the previous newsletter had been filled, including Good Hearted Lawyer, Data Dasher and Shop til You Drop Specialist. They're seeking A Versatile Cool Head, A Publications Sleuth, and a Heavy Lifter. It's been a long time since I've read a museum newsletter with a sense of humor, and these entries made me laugh out loud. But what made the museum's members respond?

So I haven't spoken with any of these volunteers, but here's my long-distance take on what made volunteerism work at all three places.
  • People volunteer for things they feel passionate about. The Film Festival folks love film, and New Kingston. If there's nothing to be passionate about in your organization, you'll have a tough time finding volunteers.
  • Volunteers like to make some decisions. The film festival people got to decide what films to show, not just show up to run the projector. I know not every volunteer can take on managing a project, but many can. Try not to micro-manage your volunteers.
  • Volunteers like to feel they're part of something important. Those archaeology volunteers really felt like they were uncovering something meaningful about the history of their community.
  • Volunteers like specific tasks. The Slate Valley Museum probably won't ask their Good Hearted Lawyer to shovel the walk (unless he moonlights as the Snowman, also needed). Every job on their list is clear and concise. How much better is that then trying to find people to sit idly at your front desk?
  • Volunteers like fun. At the film festival, the organizers were obviously having fun--and the archaeology crew definitely, despite the rain, looks like they're having fun too. The Slate Museum's entertaining job descriptions help ensure that those volunteers approach their work in a spirit of fun as well.
So, lighten up, broaden your circle of friends, work as a team, and have fun!

A Productive Exchange of Experiences, Upstate Edition

What would you want museum colleagues from another country to understand about your museum? What would you want to know about museums in another place?

The past year has been full of amazing opportunities for me to contemplate these questions and this week provided another chance. Ten Ukrainian museum professionals were in the Albany area as part of the US State Department's International Visitors program (and organized by Bonnie Beard of the International Center of the Capital Region). I had the chance to spend a day with them, visiting the Albany Institute of History and Art and Olana, the home of artist Frederic Church. My Ukrainian colleagues, many of whom I had met while in Ukraine, had a host of questions. Just a few:
  • How long is the exhibit development process? Who is involved in it?
  • Are your employees unionized?
  • What is your membership program like?
  • What do people volunteer and how do you provide oversight of volunteers?
  • How are decisions made about furnishing Olana?
  • How does Olana cope with the potential of "overuse" of the site?
  • Does your museum charge for loans?
  • How do you make sure your Quadracentennial exhibit is different than other museums?
  • What partnerships do you develop and how?
  • What kinds of educational materials are developed--and who is responsible for developing them?
  • How is, or is not, the local government involved in your work?

The group had already visited Washington and Williamsburg, and will head on to South Dakota, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Chicago as part of their three-week whirlwind tour--but I suspect, based on our conversations, two things in particular will remain memorable for them about this particular day. First, the idea of visible storage at the Institute--although visitors can't visit storage, a large window in a gallery space provides an open view. As one person said, "nothing is secret." And the second is Olana itself on the most beautiful of autumn days. Several people remarked to me that it was both a beautiful and a meditative space, a very special place to think about beauty and the landscape.

And I suspect the biggest take-away will be what one participant already mentioned: that United States museums are all different--that there is no one-size-fits-all model for how we do our work here. There are meditative places, there are noisy, crazy, try anything places; places for art, history and science; big places, small places; innovative places, traditional places. I can't wait to hear more about the rest of their trip!

Top: The view from Olana
Bottom: Vasyl Rozhko, Director, Tustan State Preserve, Lviv; Mykola Skyba,
Head, Department of Museums Analysis and Prognosis, Ministry of Culture and Sports, Kyiv; and Tania Poshyvailo, Deputy Director for Science and Education, Ivan Honchar Museum, Kyiv, at the Albany Institute.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Finding Meaning in the Attic

I was reminded this week of how hard it is to know how museums impact their visitors. It's often very much in the long run--it might take a visitor some time to process that information into their own life experiences. A colleague emailed me asking if I'd seen the installation by Song Dong at the Museum of Modern Art, saying she thought of it when she went up into her attic to look for something. The work, called Waste Not, contains the complete contents of his mother's home in China, including the frame of the house itself, amassed over 50 years, when nothing was wasted.

I had seen the exhibit and had been fascinated both by the array and arrangement of objects and by the way the installation engaged visitors who could walk through and around a lifetime of possessions. But this friend's following email really brought home the sometimes unexpected ways in which meanings can be made:
It kind of hit me over the head when I went up to find something in the attic. Our things are organized by type...all sorted visibly on the floor just like the installation. I stopped in my tracks and had to get my head around it all. Pretty powerful.

Funny, I remember as a child being confused by my Greek grandmother's practice of getting every bit of toothpaste out of the tube...and then she would flatten the tube and cut it with scissors and then scrape the remaining toothpaste out.

I have to say that when I saw the toothpaste tubes in the installation, I had to take a deep breath. I was never close to my grandmother, and she died when I was very young, but I was certainly transported back. It was not until seeing this in the exhibit that I made a connection between the toothpaste tubes and my grandmother's experience in the Turkish war (early 20th c.). I remember her talking about the suffering...and the need for "waste not" all stayed with her until she died.
So from China to Greece to New York, a through thread of toothpaste tubes and family memories thanks to an artist and a museum.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In or Out of the Global Box?

I've done a whole group of posts about my trip to Germany--but not about the reason I went--which was to present a paper as part of a session called In or Out of the Global Box: Industrial Heritage from Different Perspectives at the TICCIH conference. My next post will be about Chernobyl and Bhopal, but here I wanted to share what my friend, colleague and session organizer, Gyorgyi Nemeth, shared so provocatively with our audience. Gyorgyi is an assistant professor at the University of Miskolc, Hungary, and has done work extensively on industrial history in eastern Hungary.

Although the conference theme was Industrial Heritage, Ecology and Economy, she reminded the group that in reality, this conference, like many others, was perhaps not as committed to multiple perspectives as they might be. Researchers might be interested, in theory, in global perspectives, but such research was usually conducted from a Western European framework.

To support her approach, she conducted an analysis of the industrial sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Fully 70% of the industrial/technical sites on the World Heritage List are from Europe--with only 4 sites from Eastern Europe. No sites are preserved on the list that relate to the modern industrial period.

In particular, Gyorgyi talked about a real reluctance to talk about the forced Soviet industrialization of the 20th century--which took place throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These factories, and their accompanying communities, were planned and centralized structures, meant to reinforce socialism; to keep control of people, and to provide no separation between factory and home. In reality, of course, these places were places of social stress and repression--and with the end of the Soviet Union and the decline of controlled industry, these places have become a type of lost community. As I understand it, none of these communities are preserved, documented, or interpreted.

Gyorgyi's passionate presentation inspired a lively debate:
  • What stories do these communities tell? To whom? How can we collect these millions of individual stories?
  • Is it only the West who has the luxury of being post-industrial and thinking of all these structures as monuments?
  • Although historians have begun, with the end of the Soviet Union, to explore the history of these communities, what sorts of preservation might be undertaken?
  • What does this Soviet-style history mean to industrial historians who think of a western, relatively straight-line analysis of industrial history and technology?
  • Who will chose to tell these stories? From my experience in Ukraine, it's hard to imagine that country having the resources or the will to preserve such places.
  • How can conferences --of any type--welcome and support new participants?
  • And how, perhaps most importantly, do all of us open up our work to new perspectives, to new people?
And as a side note, my participation in this session was, many years on, the result of a long-ago, AAM-ICOM, International Partnership Among Museums Project, where Gyorgyi and I had the opportunity to work together. My special thanks to Gyorgyi for providing me with such a wonderful learning opportunity this fall (and my apologies for not figuring out how to get the accent marks in her name!) Any errors in the description of her presentation are entirely my own.

Magnitogorsk steel production facility, 1930s
Viktor Kalmikov, Magnitogorsk, 1930 by Max Alpert (Russian 1899-1980)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hmmm...What would a Museum of Hygiene be Like?

The whole name seems a bit clinical: The German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. I really didn't know what to expect, but made my way there. It's out of the center city area, and appears to not particularly be on the tourist trail. There weren't huge numbers of visitors on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

But...although I was a bit unmoved by the permanent exhibit and the children's museum part seemed fairly routine, the exhibit Work, Meaning, Care, was one of the most surprising things I'd seen in a very long time. The museum's website describes the ideas driving the exhibit:
In the five sections of this exhibition, fundamental questions are posed about work as it is understood today. How can we properly tell whether work is being done, and how can work and leisure be distinguished from one another? What purpose does work serve in a capitalist society? How do our individual attitudes towards work develop during childhood and at school? What importance does work have beyond power, money and recognition? What are the options available for the world of work tomorrow?
The exhibit made extensive use of video installations, and surprising spaces--somehow a space with a disco ball was pretty unexpected! The exhibit was really designed for adults, although I think older children, accompanied by parents, may have found it interesting as well. There were lots of words (in German and English), but a great deal else to look at as well--I mean, when was the last time you saw a case full of people's security blankets--literally, those blankies and stuffed animals that provide comfort?

I only took a couple photos before I was reprimanded, so here's just a few shots of mine, followed by some from the museum's website.

The outer walls of each section all used black and white graphics to tell a story--but they were really graphics in the sense of being graphical representations of all sorts of information--what time we start work, unemployment, and the like. Statistics made interesting!

There were dozens of videos in many different presentations from a dark room where gigantic videos of people at work (for instance, doing surgery) to mid-sized videos such as these where you heard about topics such as work boredom, to an ending series of videos that used puppets to explore the work of the future.

In spending some time on the museum's website, I found a summary of their work:
It is thus neither a science center nor a special museum devoted to a strictly defined topic area. Its interests center on the biological, social, and cultural dimensions of the human being. As a modern museum of science, it especially reflects what the sciences mean for society of the 21st century. Through its exhibitions and events, the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum offers an independent public forum for the dialogue between science and society.
What did I particularly appreciate about this exhibit?
  • Really thinking outside the box about design and use of media--my descriptions don't really do justice to the inventiveness at work here
  • Surprising spaces--dark, light, big, little
  • It was really about ideas--it took a topic--work--that I can't even imagine how many exhibits I've seen about--and made me think about it in new ways.
  • and, it integrated a whole host of different perspectives--not as sidebars, but in the conceptual heart of the exhibit.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

See in Germany

Last week I presented a session at the International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage International Congress in Freiberg, Germany. More in a future post about the session itself, but a highlight of the conference was a bus tour of post-industrial sites in this region of former East Germany. The tour involved sites that were all part of two connected projects.

The first was the International Building Exhibition for Furst-Puckler Land (IBA in German). IBA are term-limited projects (in this case ten years) that are designed to find new ideas and solutions to urban development and landscape planning in a particular region. The first IBA took place from 1901 to 1914. Between 2000 and 2010 this project aims to show the ways in which the area of brown coal production in Lusatia can be transformed as 17 opencast mines and other industries were closed down after reunitification. 25 separate projects, divided into eight "landscape islands" show how industrial landscapes and buildings can be converted and re-used.

The second effort, which will continue after 2010 is known as SEE--a branding that is intentionally ambigous. According to the project, "visitors are invited to 'see' beyond the present stage of the transformation of the landscape region and to look forward to the future to see the complete development. The second meaning derives from the word See, German for lake, referring to the new Lusatian lake area that is being created."

What did we see? Four separate sites, representing different levels of tourism experiences. (and by the way, all were denoted by these large blue signage cubes on the landscape--a nice change from your standard roadside signs).

We began and ended at the Plessa Power Plant, a huge brown coal power plant opened in 1927. It became outdated but was difficult to shut down because of the need for power. However, the plan finally closed in 1992 and then efforts to find an alternative use for this "Cathedral of Work" began. Our tour took us through the process from the delivery of brown coal to the production of electricity. Substantial funds from the European Union and the brown coal restoration fund have helped preserve the buildings and work continues to find additional tenants to ensure the site's continued viability. The focus of this tour was the building itself, the main interest of most of the conference participants--I wished for more about the workers themselves and hope that the future museum will not only give me a sense of this majestic place, but of the generations who worked there.

The Bio Towers in Lauchhammer look like a medieval castle, but they are really the sole-surviving remnants of a large coking plant. Treatment for groundwater contamination at the site continues. The experience is limited, although you can go up into a tower, and the community hopes to make the site a place for performances and events--it was inaugurated with a ropewalking act by a famous German acrobatic family.

At the F60 mine, the large overburden conveyor bridge dominates the landscape for miles. This equipment, completed in 1991 and closed down just 13 months later because of a change in energy policy seems to attract visitors interested not only in mining history, but interested in a chance to walk, and even bungee-jump, from this incredibly large steel framework. It's now an anchor point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage. As one can imagine, the issues faced in conserving this structure, in the open landscape, are immense.

Our final stop were the IBA-Terraces, the main visitor center of the IBA project. The large open-cast mine is becoming a lake, and a pier, now on dry land, will eventually connect directly with the water. The sandy, post-mining landscape looks like a desert, not Germany, and already hosts hiking, dirt-biking and other recreational activities. Eventually, this and other mines converted to lakes in the region will allow visitors to enjoy water-based activities as well.

These were all amazing places, and I was glad to have seen them. I was incredibly impressed at the investment of the European community and the German government in these preservation projects and the idea of a project such as IBA--to take ten years to demonstrate new ideas seemed a wonderful thing.

However, it's hard to tell yet whether these projects will thrive as tourist attractions. It appears everywhere that communities hope for museums and heritage sites to rebuild economically. At least in Germany, there appears to be sufficient investment to make that happen, but only time will tell.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Eye on the Design in the City

For the past several years Nina Simon has led a thoughtful, engaging session at AAM's conference where museum people share their perspectives on everything from book drops to ball games that can inspire us to think about museums and exhibits in new ways. For some reason I thought of those sessions as I spent a couple days in Dresden, Germany as a solitary tourist. So here's a small homage to their creative ideas.

How can a city like Dresden inspire exhibits?

Use all the senses
The sound of street musicians and church organs, the rough cobblestone streets and the smooth marble museum floors, the taste of sausage and great desserts, the over-the-top Baroque architecture, and the faint smell of the Elbe all combine together.

Make some surprising places
This square group of trees, trimmed to just above your head, made for a beautiful little shock as you entered it. On the terrace overlooking the river, you entered and it was cooler, quieter (except for the rustle of leaves) and with a totally different cast of light. It made me think about spaces in museums that provide the same quality of surprise.

Provide places for overviews and a chance to look closely at details
The walk around the top of the Zwinger Palace provided an ever-changing chance to do both.

Give visitors a behind-the-scenes look
A 2002 flood devastated Dresden and the Albertinium has been closed for renovation. A banner outside the construction site described how the renovation will build "an ark for art" to avoid future disasters. Another banner at an archaelogical site told visitors what that big hole in the ground might have been--not just what it will be in the future.

Provide different ways to make your way around
In Dresden's case, it was physically---by bike, or pedi-cab, or foot, or carriage, but this can serve as a metaphor for providing varied paths for your visitors to explore the exhibit.

Don't ignore the hard parts
Dresden's rebuilt Frauenkirche uses both the dark stones of the old cathedral destroyed in an Allied bombing during the waning days of World War II intermixed with new stones, and a new synagogue, consecrated in 2001, stands on the same site as the synagogue badly damaged during Kristallnacht and later destroyed. The new synagogue contains a Book of Remembrance documenting the thousands of members of Dresden's Jewish community killed by Nazis.

Provide us with some creative ways to see what creative thinkers have done and seen before us
Canaletto's views of Dresden reside in the Old Masters Picture Gallery here, but these red frames and a simple label make his paintings live outside the museum as we look directly at views he painted.

Have people in costume
Okay, generally I'm not a person who connects deeply to costumed interpeters. But the individually costumed tour guides and street performers somehow made a visual connection to the city itself matter.

And finally, of course, provide lots of places to sit and relax!

Friday, September 4, 2009

What do People do in Museums Part 2

Just couldn't resist one more picture, this time from Dresden, of another museum visitor at the end of what looks like a long visit.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Is It?

Reach Advisors, on their blog Museum Audience Insight recently posted a entry about a NY Times article discussing visitor behavior in museums--what commenters to the Times article called "compulsive consumerism." They raised issues about our responsibilities as museum professionals to our audience of picture-snappers.

Last month I saw an exhibit that I thought was a brilliant example of how museums can more directly provide visitors with the information and the perspectives that encourage deep thinking and looking. The Rubin Museum of Art, which focuses on art of the Himalayas has a permanent exhibition called, What is It? And it does just what is says it's going to do. The introductory label says that Himalayan art is "new terrain" for many people and that the exhibit will introduce this "exhilarating cultural landscape." The exhibit accomplishes that through four sections:
  • Where is it made?
  • Why is it made?
  • How is it made?
  • What's going on?
The introductory section has three objects--and it encourages you to return, after looking at the exhibit, to reconsider the objects. Every label in the exhibit repeats one of these four questions at the top, so it's continually reinforced that this object will help to answer that question. The labels are well-written, clearly by staff with both an understanding of audience and a passion for this particular form of art. Laminated cards provide additional information and then of course, your new knowledge can be put to work throughout the museum.

I think what's particularly important about this exhibition is that I didn't feel condescended to--the material was not "dumbed down" in any way. Rather, the Rubin communicated and shared a joy for learning about these works, something that's perhaps missing from many museums.

It's not just this particular exhibition that conveys that connection with the audience at the Rubin. As I entered a new temporary exhibit, a docent welcomed me, and said, "if you have any questions, please let me know. I'll be circulating around the exhibit and will be back around. Enjoy!" Magnifying glasses, simple but beautifully designed interactives, and video installations that are informative but don't compete with the art all make the Rubin one of my favorite places.